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Hammersmith: My experience navigating private mental health care after the Women’s Center lost its counseling

Ariana Hammersmith, Op-Ed Contributor

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I used to receive counseling at the Women’s Center. Since the removal of its counseling services, my access to mental health care has changed significantly. Going from university to private mental health services, I’ve struggled to find easily accessible and affordable care.

The Women’s Center was the first place I ever accessed mental health care. Although I have health insurance and I could have seen a private therapist off-campus, I ultimately chose to contact the Women’s Center because it’s close and friends have told me they’ve had positive experiences there. Until last August, when I left to study abroad, the Women’s Center was my primary mental health care provider.

In October, midway through my study abroad program, I found out the Women’s Center was closing its counseling services. I was shocked, in total disbelief. I couldn’t believe the University had done this, that they had taken away my care, when the Women’s Center had such a positive impact on campus. At first I was hopeful. The therapist I had seen at the Women’s Center was purportedly moving to Counseling and Psychological Services, and I would still be able to see her. But I later learned she was leaving the university because of the transition, and I lost contact with her. Homesick and 4,000 miles away, I realized I wouldn’t have mental health care when I returned to Evanston.

My critics will probably wonder why I didn’t go to CAPS after the Women’s Center removed its counseling services. As a person with depression, I need reliable and consistent mental health care, which CAPS cannot really offer for those with chronic mental illness due to high demand. When it comes down to it, CAPS is a short-term solution and routinely refers out students like me who are “non-urgent” cases and need therapy on a weekly basis for the foreseeable future. Even though the 12-session limit has been eliminated, CAPS’ capacity to admit students has not significantly increased because it remains understaffed. Losing consistent access to mental health care and my therapist was extremely challenging, and I don’t feel particularly inclined to trust the University with my mental wellness a second time around.

Despite its shortcomings in mental health, NU has done a pretty good job of taking care of my physical health. Searle is far from perfect, but when I got bronchitis last year and mono my freshman year, a health practitioner at Searle saw me the day I called and prescribed me the medicine I needed to recover. There is rarely a long wait to see a doctor at Searle, and they will accept students no matter how often they call in sick. Why isn’t that the case with mental health at NU?

Since my return home, I’ve struggled to find a new therapist. I called half a dozen numbers, only to be turned away because the doctor wasn’t accepting new patients, the office didn’t accept my insurance, the office was booked until May, or the soonest available appointment was at a location an hour away. Luckily, I recently found a new therapist that accepts my insurance, but she is located in Chicago, not Evanston. I couldn’t find a therapist that met my needs at an affordable price in Evanston, so I have to make a 40-minute commute on the “L” after class once a week in order to access care.

As a white, middle-class woman with health insurance at an elite university in the suburbs, I should probably be the person best positioned to access mental health care — and I still face significant challenges in doing so. What if I didn’t have health insurance? What if I couldn’t afford my co-pays? What if I couldn’t afford train fare to get to and from my appointments? What if Chicago didn’t have a public transportation system?

What if someday I become so depressed that I can’t do all this arduous legwork in order to access mental health care?

The fact of the matter is that even though accessing mental health care is challenging for me, I may very well have it easier than most.

It is clear that students face significant challenges accessing care. What I’d like to see from the University is the reinstatement of counseling services at the Women’s Center. But I would also like to see the increased funding and restructuring of CAPS to reduce wait times and create a long-term model of mental health care for NU students.

Ariana Hammersmith is a SESP junior. She can be reached at arianahammersmith2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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